Opening preseason camp: Alabama

Schedule: The Crimson Tide’s first practice is on Friday at 10:30 a.m. ET, and their first day in full pads is scheduled for next Tuesday. Alabama opens the season on Sept. 1 against Michigan in Arlington, Texas. Kickoff is 8 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised nationally by ABC.

Returning starters: Six on offense, five on defense and the place-kicker and punter on special teams.

Star power: Senior Barrett Jones is moving to center this season after winning the Outland Trophy a year ago as the Crimson Tide’s left tackle. He began his career at Alabama by starting 25 games at right guard.

New faces: Junior college cornerbacks Deion Belue and Travell Dixon are both in the running for key roles in Alabama’s secondary rotation. They both went through the spring, and Belue could be a starter at cornerback. True freshman Landon Collins is also talented enough to find his way into the safety rotation. The Crimson Tide will be looking for help at receiver, and true freshmen Chris Black and Omari Cooper were both impressive this spring after enrolling early. Another one to watch at receiver this preseason camp is true freshman Eddie Williams, who has tremendous size at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds. True freshman running back T.J. Yeldon whet everybody’s appetite this spring with his ability to gain yardage both rushing and receiving. He had 179 yards of total offense in the spring game and won’t have to wait long to get on the field this fall.

Don’t forget about: Had redshirt freshman running back Dee Hart not torn his ACL in summer workouts last year, he would have been a contributor last season for the Tide on offense. He’s at his best in space and can also catch the ball coming out of the backfield. Alabama will be able to use Hart at a number of different spots on the field, and he’s also a capable return man on special teams.

Big shoes to fill: Running backs like Trent Richardson don’t come around that often. He was an explosive breakaway threat, and he was also a bulldozer when Alabama needed the tough yards. Nick Saban has proven that he likes to play multiple backs, even when he has a great one back there, and the Tide will spread the wealth again in 2012. Junior Eddie Lacy will get his chance to be the top guy. He rushed for 674 yards (7.1 yards per carry) in backing up Richardson last season. Lacy missed the spring after undergoing surgery for turf toe, but should be good to go this preseason. Yeldon will also get his touches. He can do so many things, and Saban will see to it that he’s an integral part of the offense. Junior Jalston Fowler (6-foot-1, 242 pounds) will serve as the Tide’s bigger back, and Hart’s good enough that he would be starting for a lot of teams.

Key battle: Junior Dee Milliner is locked in at one cornerback, while senior Robert Lester returns at one of the safety spots. But there’s still some jockeying to do at the other secondary spots. The Tide will routinely use five and six defensive backs, so that makes this a big preseason camp for the likes of sophomore safety Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, sophomore safety Vinnie Sunseri, junior cornerback John Fulton and both of the junior college cornerbacks -- Belue and Dixon.

Rising star: Sophomore linebacker Adrian Hubbard was one of the stars of the spring for Alabama. Now, he gets a chance to show that he can be a star when it counts during the season. The Crimson Tide are looking for somebody to replace Courtney Upshaw as that finisher on the outside at “Jack” linebacker, and Hubbard has the size (6-foot-6, 248 pounds) and the burst to be a big-time pass-rusher in this league. He had three sacks in Alabama’s A-Day spring game.

Bottom line: Even with some of their personnel losses on defense, the Crimson Tide are talented enough to be right back in the national championship hunt again this season. They’ll start the season ranked No. 2 in the coaches poll. Balance on offense shouldn’t be a problem, not with junior AJ McCarron returning at quarterback and an offensive line that’s bubbling over with talent and experience. Tackle D.J. Fluker, guard Chance Warmack and Jones, who’s moving to center this season, could all end up being first- or second-round draft choices. And on defense, new stars will emerge. That’s just the way it is when you recruit the way the Crimson Tide have on defense. We haven’t seen an outright repeat national champion in college football since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995, but Alabama may have something to say about that this fall.